The more traditional denotative meaning of sexy is “sexually attractive or arousing”, as my computer’s dictionary puts it. There’s also the newer connotative meaning of “exciting or appealing” that the dictionary app adds as an informal definition. Either way you take it, gonorrhea isn’t sexy. I don’t know anybody who willingly talks about this old-school STIs (Sexually transmitted infections) anymore. But that’s terrible, because it looks like the clap might be making a comeback, and like some scary movie supervillain it’s going to be worse than it was before. In mid-August, the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) revoked its approval of the antibiotic cefixime (Suprax) as a treatment for gonorrhea. It seems good old Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that causes the disease, is becoming resistant to cefixime, just as it grew resistant to penicillin, tetracycline and Cipro in the past. In fact, there remains only one kind of known drug that will kill the bacteria, and the CDC isn’t too excited about its long-term prospects either. “We believe it is only a matter of time until gonorrhea develops resistance to this last remaining treatment option,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer quotes Dr Gail Bolan as saying in a news briefing in August. Bolan is director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention. She added in the same briefing, “New treatments are urgently needed, and will ultimately be our best defence against the threat of the emergence of untreatable gonorrhea.”
However, we buck up against the same impediment I first mentioned: gonorrhea isn’t sexy. In a weird, turn of the last century way, HIV was sexy. It was the pandemic of our times, so we not only studied it and sought a cure, we also warned ourselves against putting our fragile genitals in HIV’s way and took pains to teach our children to avoid it, too. The condom became the first line of defence not only against HIV but against every STIs. The trouble with that approach of confining sex to the genitals is that we never learned to really negotiate about sex, and we never learned to keep ourselves safe by any other route. As a society we slipped on the condom and congratulated ourselves on our good sense, ignoring the fact that while the risk of contracting HIV from kissing is negligible, and from oral sex low, there are still other STIs out there and you can still catch them even if you use a condom. But we don’t talk about that.
And while we protected ourselves against HIV, and routinely asked partners if they’d had an HIV test—because it’s the responsible thing to do, darnit—up to now we hesitate to ask if they’ve been tested for other STIs. HIV is not a dirty word anymore, but I dare you to mention Syphilis in mixed company. (This shame seems ubiquitous; even a porn star who depends on sex for a living was reluctant to let people know he had Syphilis, causing an outbreak that shut down the Los Angeles porn industry for a while in August.) Gonorrhea will have a serious impact on your quality of life, yet somehow it’s not in the conversations we train our kids to have in negotiating sex. Adults don’t even like to talk about it. Mention that you’ve had an STI panel done and even your most open-minded friends will look at you askance, as if you’d said something really, really shameful. Why is this still something we’re ashamed of, a whole generation since Aids? Haven’t we yet established that, yes, people have sex, and yes, sometimes they get sexually transmitted infections, and yes, there are other STIs than HIV? The CDC briefing in August was scary because it hints at a coming strain of gonorrhea that is not only difficult to detect (as the illness may be) but also untreatable. We have to advocate for research into new drugs to treat it before it’s too late. We also have to look again at how we talk about STIs, and how we negotiate sex. It’s time we were grown up about this issue; we’re old enough to have sex, we’re old enough to talk about it and all its ramifications.